Help wanted: pilots for Canada’s fighter jets

Tory MP James Bezan says short-staffing at 17 Wing is only set to get worse, as an auditor's report Tuesday found the air force lacks enough pilots for its current set of fighter jets — never mind the used ones Canada's about to receive.

Photo : Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press files

 

Tory MP James Bezan says short-staffing at 17 Wing is only set to get worse, as an auditor’s report Tuesday found the air force lacks enough pilots for its current set of fighter jets — never mind the used ones Canada’s about to receive.

“Because of the personnel shortfall, you can’t even get all the planes that we have currently up in the air. So why we spending billions of dollars on buying used, obsolete fighter jets?” Bezan asked Tuesday.

He was speaking hours after Auditor General Michael Ferguson revealed the military doesn’t have enough people to fly the planes it already has.

Ferguson said military commanders first alerted the government to the personnel shortage in 2016, when the Liberals were planning to spend billions of dollars on 18 new Super Hornet jets to supplement Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet.

But the government brushed aside those concerns and pressed ahead with the purchase while providing only minimal increases to training and other measures to make sure the Canadian Forces had the pilots and technicians to use the new planes, Ferguson said.

The Liberals eventually scuttled the Super Hornet plan due to a trade dispute between Super Hornet-maker Boeing and Montreal rival Bombardier, and are now planning to buy 25 used Australian jets for $500 million.

But the auditor general’s report said the military’s firm assessment — and his own — is that the result will be the same: planes we can’t use.

“The (Defence) Department stated that it needed more qualified technicians and pilots, not more fighter aircraft,” the report reads: “In our opinion … without more technicians and pilots, the effect on fighter-force operations will be small.”

Photo : Kim Hong-Ji / The Associated Press files

Bezan said Ottawa is scrambling to hire 200 more technicians, many of whom would likely be stationed in Winnipeg to help solve a capacity gap.

“We’re not recruiting enough and we’re definitely not retaining enough,” the Tory defence critic said.

Bezan was head of the defence committee in 2012, when Ferguson’s previous report on fighter jets helped blow up the Harper government’s plan to buy a fleet of F-35 jets without a competition.

Ferguson backed up his most recent assessment with stark numbers.

For example, in the last fiscal year, 28 per cent of fighter pilots flew fewer than the minimum number of hours needed to keep their skills and 22 per cent of technician positions in CF-18 squadrons were empty or filled by inexperienced staff.

And between April 2016 and March 2018, the air force lost 40 trained fighter pilots and produced only 30 new ones. Since then, another 17 have left or said that they planned to leave.

“I’m hearing that our pilots spend more time pushing paper than they do actually flying planes,” Bezan said, warning that airmen are leaving Winnipeg and bases across Canada for commercial airlines and even forces abroad.

“Who wants to fly around in a bunch of old, rusted-out buckets of bolts, right? That’s part of the problem.”

In a written statement, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he “takes these findings extremely seriously” and will “launch new efforts to recruit and retain pilots and technicians.”

Ottawa is expected to formally launch a $19-billion competition for 88 new fighter jets next spring, but a winner won’t be picked until 2021 or 2022. The first new fighter jet won’t arrive until 2025.

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